Halloween is extra tricky this year thanks to COVID-19. But beyond the possible exposure to the virus from trick-or-treating or Halloween parties, there’s the issue of excess sugar intake – and, as discussed below, how it might contribute to lowered immune response and increased risk for severity of viral infection.
For most, Halloween is more than just one event on the evening of Oct. 31. Instead, Halloween typically means the accumulation of large amounts of candy that can linger around the house for weeks to come. Now is a good time not only to think about how to celebrate safely this year, but also to consider alternative solutions that let kids enjoy Halloween without it becoming a prolonged exposure to excess sugar. Just like COVID-19 has led us all to think about our travel, which has greatly helped to lower our carbon footprint, it’s also a good moment to think about reducing our sugar footprint at home.
I’m a clinical researcher and professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and have been at the forefront of research in childhood nutrition and health outcomes for over 30 years. Sorting out the links between diet in early life and long-term disease risk is complex, but one clear thing we have learned is that sugar is a major contributor.
Children are born with a built-in preference for sweetness, which was supposed to be a protective mechanism to favor breastmilk and avoid harmful foods from the forest floor. Unfortunately this is backfiring in today’s high-sugar food environment, where 68% of processed foods at the grocery story and 80% of kids’ snacks have some type of added sugar. And it’s not just more sugar, but also many different types of sugar, with more than 200 names as well as alternative sweeteners that have infiltrated our food supply. This combination of preference for sweetness in our new food environment is a recipe for disaster for children, because more sugar and different types of sugar can disrupt the process of healthy growth and development.
Together with my co-author Emily Ventura, I discuss this “perfect storm” in more detail in our new book, “Sugarproof.” In “Sugarproof,” we also provide families with simple strategies, meal plans and recipes for reducing sugar and stabilizing blood glucose levels in children. Along with many other metabolic benefits, this in turn also helps strengthen immunity against COVID-19 and other viral infections. It can also reduce the severity of the infection and associated complications.
Sugar as a health risk in context of COVID-19
A 2020 study showed that high levels of blood glucose and poor glucose control predicted worse outcomes for hospital patients in terms of death and complications from COVID-19, even for those with no prior history of diabetes. This matters because over time, higher levels of sugar consumption will erode the body’s ability to successfully control blood glucose levels, a process that can begin in childhood.
An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine explains how social disparities in nutrition – like a lack of access to healthy food – are primary drivers of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. To put it another way, a poor diet which leads to obesity is associated with a broad state of systemic inflammation, made worse with conditions like diabetes. Those conditions, in turn, predict more severe outcomes from COVID-19 infection.
Recent research shows that broad systemic inflammation can disrupt the body’s ability to produce a more targeted immune response to attack the virus. Instead, the body’s immune response seems to mount a larger attack against the broader systemic inflammation, resulting in damage to vital organs. There has never been a better time than now to reduce our consumption of sugar.